Wednesday, March 16, 2016

YA Today: Three Authors in Conversation

Terry Farish, Megan Frazer Blakemore, Maria Padian & Joshua Bodwell, Ex. Director of Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance

Last Saturday the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance invited young adult (YA) authors Terry Farish, Megan Frazer Blakemore and Maria Padian to discuss what defines YA fiction today. Even though I have been blogging about YA for nine years and write it too, I learned a lot from this informal but well informed conversation, which included audience participation. We all agreed that YA is a marketing category that should concern the publisher more than the author. Some books about teenagers are published as YA and others as fiction for adults, depending on the publisher imprint.

Maria Padian defined YA as "an emotional rollercoaster with high highs and low lows" in which the character struggles "to find a place in a world that is falling apart." She advised "writers to write the story they want to write and to leave it to the publisher to decide which box to put it in."

Megan Frazer Blakemore described how YA has evolved since S.E. Hinton in the 1960s and Judy Blume in the 1970's, whose work was surprisingly edgy even by today's standards. Megan posited that if The Catcher in the Rye were published today, it would probably be packaged as YA because the teenage voice is immediate with no distance from the protagonist. However, To Kill A Mockingbird would still be adult literary fiction because the narrator is an adult, looking back with a mature perspective.

Megan, who writes both young adult and middle grade (MG) fiction, explained how those markets differ. MG (ages 8-12) is purchased primarily by schools and by libraries, but YA (ages 12 and up) is bought mostly by individual adults (who may be buying for themselves or teens) and by fewer teenagers. Quoting figures from Publisher's Weekly, Megan reported that in 2015 adults purchased 80% of YA fiction, which is a big jump from 55% in 2012. This trend is worrisome if publishers start adjusting the content of YA books to fit an adult readership. Already there has been a shift in YA towards more books set in the junior and senior years of high school, leaving a big hole (8th-10th grades) between YA and MG. Maria added that over 75% of YA buyers are female, which might explain the prevalence of pink covers.

Terry Farish, who writes in verse about the immigrant experience and the traumas of war, described how educators' curriculum have broadened the audience for YA. Recently published YA books are finding a new home on the reading lists of middle schools, high schools and colleges. Sometimes teachers use an accessible YA novel to launch a fact-based curriculum about war, refugees and immigration. Classroom use is more gender balanced too.

My blog post Good Books About Refugees included Terry's debut YA novel, The Good Braider, and Maria's third YA novel, Out of Nowhere. Both authors conducted extensive research to describe the African immigrant experience and culture clash in Maine. Maria warned writers to avoid preaching and to focus instead on character driven drama to allow for emotional connection. As her current editor told her "I'm allergic to bibliotherapy." Megan added that the YA author needs "to write about the real world, not an idealized version."

The topic of realism segued to a discussion of profanity in YA. A handful of swear words in Out of Nowhere resulted in Maria's book being kept out of some libraries. In her upcoming novel, Wrecked, Maria has avoided any swear words, even though the subject matter of date rape is otherwise mature. Megan, who is an elementary school librarian as well as an author, explained that individual librarians make book selections at many schools, but in other districts, the collection department makes those calls. Bans on books (due to swear words or other controversial content) can affect the library collection of an entire state, such as in Texas. The authors managed to discuss this topic without swearing, showing impressive restraint.

All three authors agreed on the importance of beta readers, but they varied in practice. Maria relies extensively on her daughter, but she added male beta readers for Out of Nowhere because the protagonist was a teenaged boy. Maria also absorbed teen voices while driving carpools. Her novels have aged along with her kids from her debut about a mischievous eighth grader, Brett McCarthy, to her upcoming book, Wrecked, which is set at college. Maria's agent, Edite Kroll (who attended the panel), gives editorial feedback before the manuscript goes to her editor. Megan uses a combination of adults and tween/teen readers and absorbs the younger voice from her job as a librarian. For her MG novel The Firefly Code, Megan shared chapters with a classroom in New York City for live feedback while she was revising with her editor. Terry, who writes both YA and picturebooks, uses only adult beta readers. Since she is writing outside her cultural background, she relies heavily on adult readers from those cultures (South Sudan and Cambodian immigrants) for fact checking.

At the close, I asked a question about diversity in the YA market. A large majority of YA books have white protagonists and/or white authors. Terry and Maria offered advice on how authors can write outside their cultural background. Research and feedback from people within that culture is key. I chimed in with a plug for We Need Diverse Books, a new non-profit organization which seeks to promote children's and YA books with diverse protagonists and/or by diverse authors. If we all amplify these voices, their books will make it to a wider audience and will hopefully succeed.

If your school, library, bookstore or writing conference is seeking a realistic YA panel, I'd strongly recommend this engaging and articulate trio. Their books are fabulous too. I've read and reviewed Terry's The Good Braider, all three of Maria's books (Brett McCarthy, Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best and Out of Nowhere), and I'm currently enjoying Megan's Very In Pieces, a YA novel about a studious, mathematical girl who feels out of place in an eccentric artsy family. Very struggles to be brave as her beloved poet-grandmother slowly dies of cancer and insists on talking about death. This literary story includes romance too. My unofficial report of this YA panel was merely a summary; there was a lot more depth and breadth.

Disclosure: I'm friends with Maria, but this was the first time I'd met Megan and Terry in person. I'm a member of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance so this event was free to me ($5 for nonmembers). I was not compensated (beyond Maria's cookies) for blogging about this panel but volunteered to do so. I am also a member of We Need Diverse Books. My contemporary YA novel set in coastal Maine is seeking agent representation.
June 2016 update: my new literary agent is Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, who also represents Megan Frazer Blakemore.

Thank you to the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance for sponsoring this panel, to MWPA Executive Director Joshua Bodwell for organizing it, to Maria Padian for baking delicious cookies and to the Glickman Library at USM for providing the space.

Afterwards, I enjoyed a brisk walk on the Eastern Prom in Portland, feeling inspired!


Amanda Summer said...

Fascinating panel discussion. I've always wondered how it is decided whether a book on the cusp of YA/adult fiction gets categorized as one or the other. Congrats on having your England novel under review at a publisher - good luck and hope to be reading a signed copy soon!

Barrie said...

Very interesting. Sound like a great panel. And great of you to share with us!

Rose said...

Very interesting, Sarah, especially the fact that the majority of YA novels are purchased by adults. Perhaps they're trying to encourage their children to read? I remember my first introduction to YA novels was in a college Lit course for English Ed majors. I'd never heard of them before that--I guess I read adult novels as a teen. But our professor, who was an excellent teacher, wanted us to be aware of this type of novel for our future students and had us do a a lot of research on them. I remember, too, teaching "The Outsiders" in my early years of teaching. For many students, this was the first book they had ever read in entirety, and nearly every student loved this book. To me, this is one of the most important aspects of YA novels--getting kids to love reading.

A Cuban In London said...

A very timely post as I was discussing a similar subject with someone the other day. Who determines what genre a book belongs to? Or if it belongs to any genre at all? I really appreciated everyone's input in the discussion.

Greetings from London.

The Elephant Rag said...

Sarah, thanks for covering our panel. We didn't even get to dystopian and fantasy and other categories that are very big in YA. Maybe that's because Maria, Meg, and I have written realistic YA. There is also a large sub-genre of YA novels in verse. I wish you all good things with your novel. Terry

Sarah Laurence said...

All who observe, Happy Easter! Sorry to be slow to reply.

Amanda, thanks! I'd love for you to read my book.

Barrie, thanks!

Rose, some adults are purchasing for their kids but many are buying for themselves. It was interesting to hear you, as an adult, were introduced to YA. I read the Outsiders for school too and it stuck with me. You must have been a great teacher. I agree; YA novels show kids that reading is fun and may establish a lifelong habit of reading.

ACIL, I wonder if the process is different in England. In the USA editors either do adult or kids/YA. However some imprints like St. Martin's do both. For example Rainbow Rowell first book, Attachments, was adult fiction but her second book, Eleanor and Park, was marketed as YA fiction to bookstores and this was with the same editor and imprint. I'm guessing that the marketers at publishing houses make that call and also booksellers decide where to shelf the books.

Terry @TheElephantRag, thanks for participating in the panel! Since I'm more into realistic YA myself, I didn't mind the omission.

Katie said...

Great to read your summary of the event, Sarah, and to see your smiling faces, Terry, Megan and Maria. I wish I could have made it down south to be a member of the audience. Hoping I'll get to see all of you in April at the Cape Author Fest.

All the best,
Katie Quirk

thecuecard said...

Megan seemed to make good points about how YA's evolved etc. I found the discussion with the panel interesting.

Bee said...

So much interesting information shared here, Sarah. The issue of profanity shows a cultural difference between US and UK YA. UKYA seems much grittier, in general, and profanity definitely seems more tolerated -- and, well, just not such a big issue. The use of profanity is definitely true to the way many (if not most) teens speak. Thanks for sharing this!